The issues from without: the West Side’s image

As an Urban Studies major, I feel as though I have done a decent amount of research of many of the neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities.  However, I was not as familiar with the West Side of St. Paul as I thought because the images I had of the area are the ones I’m going to preach against today. 

If there has been a driving thesis for the work that my group and I have constructed it is that the West Side of St. Paul is an enlightened neighborhood that understands its cultural significance, and it does not live up to the bad reputation that was thrust upon them. 

The historical background and the fact that it has been an immigrant enclave since it was incorporated by Ramsey Country created this bad reputation.  The tension between immigrant communities and many multi-generational “American” citizens has created a communication problem for many neighborhoods across the country.   The West Side is not an exception to this rhetoric.  An article that we read in class explained how immigrants in the current context are framed as pollutants,

“Images of large, unorganized groups of immigrants mirror the images of stationary pollution from the coverage of Love Canal in their visual framing and content. These visual constructions create an impression of immigrants as both stationary and mobile pollution.”  (Cisneros, 579)

I believe that this metaphor was reigning true for the West Side even before the immigrant “issue” was covered in the mainstream media.  The types of language used framing immigrants as pollutants could explain some of the historical intercultural communication issues that the West Side and the rest of the city has had for going on a century and a half.   Right from the beginning, this neighborhood was deemed as a place for “second class citizens” because it was housing large immigrant populations that could be viewed as “pollutants” to the rest of St. Paul.  They were given the area of the West Side to contain the “pollution” into the rest of the city of St. Paul and hoped to keep them as stationary as possible.

If this harmful imagery had been stopped years before, I believe that the West Side would be more accepted by other neighboring areas.  Unfortunately, many people see immigrants as less intelligent, worthy, or civilized than somebody born within the country. Even today, some of the residents feel the stigma associated with having an immigrant status.  As one of our interviewees, Kelly, explains:

“Most of the people that come here from other countries…they may not speak English but they probably speak five other languages and a lot of them were PhDs or…I mean, have Master’s in their own country and are very high up but then when they come here the degree doesn’t translate because the schooling is different. And so, they essentially have to start all over. Plus they don’t know the language. So a lot of people are like, “You’re stupid because you don’t know English,” when really, just because they don’t know English doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. But people don’t see beyond that. And we’re here to get the basic needs met and to give them a hand to have a better life.”

Kelly’s point about creating resources for the community brings me to another topic regarding this neighborhood which is a pillar.  There is a deep investment from within to make this a highly livable, safe, and respected community.  That almost sounds like a slogan for the Urban Renewal projects that tore up thousands of small communities within the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but this far from that. 

The resources that are readily available to the citizens show a genuine investment in the well-being of the people and the hopes for keeping the authenticity of the neighborhood honest.  Although many of them cannot overcome the historical disinvestment that St. Paul has displayed towards the West Side, it is a huge leap in disabling some of those obstacles.  Such resources include the historic Neighborhood House, (which is where Kelly works), The West Side Community Organization, and the West Side Community Health Services.  

One of those very visible groups, The West Side Community Organization, states this is their mission:

“The West Side Community Organization (WSCO) is an action oriented, neighborhood-based organization empowering our residents to participate in and advocate for solutions to West Side community issues. Growing out of a movement in 1973 to save Humboldt High School, WSCO remains committed to its activist roots, using organizing and community economic development principles as a foundation for all of its work. The organization works to increase the civic participation of residents by initiating organizing campaigns, providing leadership development opportunities for youth and adults and by educating and building the power base of residents to tackle civic issue.”

I believe that the WSCO is trying to craft an empowered community to overcome the way the neighborhood is viewed from the outside world.   There is not enough intercultural communication occurring between the inside and outside worlds of the West Side yet, but I think creating a healthy self-image for the people that live there is one of the first steps towards opening this conversation up. 

Unfortunately, even with inspired organizations doing their best effort towards creating an engaged community, there is still a sense of shame for some based on the reputation of the area.  Rosa, another one of our interviewees, explains:

“When I was younger, I usually stayed in West Side and everyone I knew lived here so I never felt any shame. But now that I am working outside West Side and meeting new people, it is hard to be proud. Many times people refer to West Side as the ghetto, where there is a lot of violence and only poor people live. It sometimes makes me not want to tell people where I am from. I am afraid they will judge me as something I am not.”

Rosa’s insights prove that there are some identity issues between the avowed and ascribed roles.  The community sees itself as a vibrant, healthy, engaged area while the rest of the city has turned a cold shoulder to them and has written them off as “dangerous.”  This is a perspective that St. Paul, Minneapolis, and the surrounding suburbs perpetuate in their media coverage throughout.  Headlines such as “Uptick in Crime Brings St. Paul Police to City’s West Side” (KSTP) are part of the reason that many people view Rosa’s neighborhood as the “ghetto.” 

I found it interesting that the only time I was able to find positive headlines was when I really searched for them.  They were not readily available to me as I was researching.  If I had to dig for the positive articles, then how would anybody that wasn’t digging below the surface ever find out the good side?  It seems as though the identity issue is not an “issue” from the inside.  But rather, it is an issue that outsiders have with those from the community.  

The West Side has a lot of cityscape that makes it different.  It screams that it has an ethnic and cultural identity that it is proud of having and will not be silenced into forgetting where many of their families had come from.

I believe that this pride, although not intentionally, has created some obstacles towards intercultural communication.  I’ve stumbled upon this idea of using the art and cityscape as a form of protest.  This idea revolves around using creative work that shows a pride in one’s culture to show their oppressors that they cannot be silenced into submission.  I think this idea makes some people uncomfortable because it forces them to stop and analyze as to who the community members from the West Side protesting against.

 When people from other neighborhoods, cultural backgrounds, or ethnic identities look at this question, they may not like the answer.  Because of this, I think the conversation between the greater Twin Cities and the West Side may stay closed for quite some time.   These are the critical conversations that must occur if the ascribed and avowed roles are ever going to be remedied.   

With this, I urge anyone who has not gone to the West Side to do so.  The streets are beautiful, the people are welcoming, and the investment in community is evident.  The historical context has led to this terrible reputation that the West Side has not been able to shake.  I believe that if more people were willing to open their minds and cross into another culture, then maybe they’ll be able to exist without the negative image and the burden of having to prove themselves as a livable community.  It already is, and hopefully more people will see that in the future. 

Cisneros, David. “Contaminated Communities: The Metaphor of “Immigrants as Pollutants” in Media Representations of Immigrations.”  Rhetoric and Public Affairs.

Unknown, Rosa.  (5 June 2012). Personal Interview

Unknown, Kelly.  (25 May 2012). Personal Interview

“Uptick in Crime Brings St. Paul Police to City’s West Side.” KSTP.  Web 10 June 2012. http://kstp.com/news/stories/s2307030.shtml

“West Side Community Organization.” WSCO. Web 10 June 2012. http://wsco.org/?page_id=233

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